I think we all have a soft spot for the moral panics of our youth. For me, that’s the Satanic Panics of the eighties. My small Indiana town was not at all unique in having a rumored Devil’s House somewhere out in the country. A kid heard from another kid whose aunt knew somebody who said that’s where Satanists worshiped the Devil. Back in the day, news outlets ran with lurid stories of sexual abuse and torture of children in the name of Lucifer. The evidence was always sketchy — recovered memories and so forth — but what a great story. As Fred Clark has discussed, there is a need among some in this country to believe that there are lurking hordes of would-be kitten burners in our midst.
A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so.
I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.
But here was the weird part: Most of the commenters and letter-writers didn’t seem to notice that they were expressing a unanimous and noncontroversial sentiment. Their comments and letters were contentious and sort of aggressively defensive. Or maybe defensively aggressive. They were angry, and that anger didn’t seem to be directed only at the kitten-burners, but also at some larger group of others whom they imagined must condone this sort of thing.
So, maybe you’re too young for the Satanic Panics. Maybe your first moral panic has to do with an extensive but elusive network of the nation’s elite kidnapping, raping, and torturing kids in the Comet Ping Pong basement and elsewhere to get their adrenochrome fix. The specifics probably don’t matter that much, but some common ingredients seem to be sex, kids, abuse, and a poorly defined but surely very large group of people who derive profit and/or pleasure from such bad behavior.
Enter the gender affirming care debate. This one is a little weird because on the surface, there is the knotty issue of what kind of care is best for transgender kids. Puberty blockers and hormone therapy aren’t risk free propositions. But then, depriving kids with gender dysmorphia of such treatments is not risk free either. When do the risks of one justify the risks of the other? That seems like the kind of things you let kids, their parents, and their physicians sort out. The Indiana General Assembly has stepped in and forbidden families from getting this kind of treatment. SB 480-2023 is cruel. It helps no one and makes many people’s lives harder.
But the way the debate was framed was perplexing. Elective sex reassignment surgery for kids just wasn’t happening in Indiana. Indiana physicians and medical providers testified to as much before the General Assembly. (Nationwide: “56 youth between the ages of 13 and 17 had genital surgeries over the course of three years. Testimony has affirmed that surgeries on minors don’t occur in Indiana.”) And yet, legislators and even Gov. Holcomb fixated on this non-existent kind of surgery when justifying their actions.
Recently I was reading a message board (not focused on Indiana) where there was a discussion about treatment for transgender children. And, I have to say, the intensity of the focus on “genital mutilation” caught me off guard. That’s what triggered my memory of the Satanic Panic and the QAnon adrenochrome conspiracy, and I realized that I should not have been surprised. History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. People want to believe that they are righteously standing up to the shadowy forces of liberals, atheists, communists, and other undesirables who are mutilating kids’ genitals when they get a break from comic books, reefer, Dungeons & Dragons, the knock out game, Tide pods, kitten burning and jazz music.
I don’t want to suggest that the right course of action for helping a transgender kid or a kid who thinks they might be transgender is necessarily straight forward. I think there are plenty of people who are legitimately concerned about the well being of children. But those kinds of concerns would presumably lead a person to support better funding for studying treatments. Maybe more robust supports for families striving to do their best for kids. Possibly even some additional regulatory hoops to jump through depending on the risks of the treatment being sought.
Something else is at work with the intensity of feeling among people eager to eliminate access to puberty blockers under the rhetoric of banning non-existent elective surgeries. It has a very Anti-Kitten Burning Coalition feel to it.